IOWA CITY, Ia. — LeVar Woods’ new job on the Iowa football coaching staff comes with some assembly required.
As full-time special teams coordinator, he scans the 100 or so names on the Hawkeye roster seeking players who want to be more than just “a guy on the team.” Those are the ones eager to make a mark blocking on kickoff returns or covering punts. Those are now Woods’ chosen people.
The example Woods is using during Iowa’s spring practices is Riley McCarron, the 5-foot-9 walk-on out of Dubuque Wahlert who battled his way onto the field with his ability to cover and return kicks and eventually became a starting wide receiver in 2016.
“He took it to heart every day in practice,” Woods told reporters Friday. “And he worked really hard. And I think that sort of springboarded him.”
McCarron is on the practice squad of the New England Patriots now. That should get the young Hawkeyes’ attention.
Woods, a star linebacker at Iowa from 1998-2000, has been on the coaching staff for 11 years. This is the first time he’s been solely in charge of special teams. And it’s obviously a passion for him. His seven-year professional stint included plenty of special teams duty. He’ll bring that up, but only if someone asks.
“I will tell them it helped me sustain a career in the NFL,” Woods said.
Now it’s helping him sustain a career in coaching.
Woods has plenty of decisions to make this spring and summer, from choosing a punter after neither Colten Rastetter nor Ryan Gersonde distinguished themselves a year ago, to selecting the return specialists, to even breaking in a new long-snapper.
But first up, he said, is finding a replacement for Kevin Ward, the graduated linebacker who was the captain of the special teams unit for each game last season. That honor is voted on by players. Ward’s selection was no accident, and the void he leaves should not be overlooked, Woods said.
“Kevin Ward to me exemplified Iowa’s special teams,” Woods said. “He understood that that was going to be his role on the team.”
Junior linebacker Amani Jones and sophomore safety Geno Stone are two players who may be in line to fill Ward’s leadership spot, Woods said. Their take-no-prisoners approach to kickoff coverage is already noticeable.
“Their example sets the tone,” Woods said.
But the team's eight practices into the 2018 season and no one is about to be anointed. That’s where the assembling comes in. Woods is eager to find the next McCarron or Ward.
“Every single day, we’re trying to work to develop leaders and increase the leadership on this football team,” Woods said. “A lot of that, in my mind, comes from special teams. Guys that may not have a specific role yet on offense, I’m trying to find a specific role on special teams to get them going and help increase their value on our team.”
Not that it’s all serious business. Woods, who shared special teams duties with linebackers coach Seth Wallace a year ago while also helping coach tight ends, gets to devise trick plays as well.
There’s an undeniable buzz in the air when the players know they’re working on something secretive that might be pulled out at a crucial moment to flummox an unsuspecting opponent. Everyone wants to get in on the action, Woods said.
The Hawkeyes pulled off four trick plays on special teams a year ago. The highlight was the “Polecat” connection from Rastetter to long-snapper Tyler Kluver that bamboozled Ohio State in a 55-24 Iowa upset.
“I drew it up, designed it,” Woods said of that fake field goal. “Every week, I try to have something in my mind that I can bring to coach (Kirk) Ferentz and, like, ‘Hey, if we need a play, this is it.’ ”
Woods scours game film from the high school level on up to see what has worked, searching for something that might catch a defense looking the wrong way.
He said Ferentz, entering his 20th season at the helm, isn’t the fuddy-duddy he’s sometimes been portrayed to be. He’ll contemplate using trick plays, as long as Woods and his players can convince him they’ll actually work.
“We have to design them correctly. We have to execute them in practice and we have to do them over and over and over again to the point where he feels comfortable with it,” Woods said, clearly enjoying the challenge.
“In our minds, we’re trying to do the same thing an offense would do. If Coach doesn’t like it, throw it out. But if we execute it, we hit it, and Coach likes it, then he’ll call it.”
Those are special times for the special teams. Woods is just getting started, but he hopes he can build a group of players who can excel at the basics and also have enough savvy to pull off some tricks.